Migration & the Immigrant Experience in Literature

Any week is a good week to talk about the importance of—and need for—the representation of diverse experiences and voices in literature. For much of our history, the canon of literature has been largely white, largely male, largely straight—and very much centered around American and white European voices. But literature can also share the stories of those whose voices have been marginalized and Otherized: those whose stories (like all our stories) are at least in part shaped by their overlapping identities.

We look to stories by and for those who are LGBT, queer, people of color, religious minorities, and immigrants to expand the canon, and as readers to widen our own horizons and expand our capacity for empathy and understanding. Of course, all too often lately—in the United States in particular, but also around the world—loud voices are saying otherwise, with inflammatory and bigoted rhetoric, or with government acts which restrict access to basic human rights.

At this present moment, at this point in our country’s history, as many (often white, often male) people engage in xenophobia targeted at immigrants of color, we thought it would be a good moment to talk about a few books that center around individual immigrant experiences.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri’s short story collection won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1999—and is still as relevant today as it was 20 years ago! Lahiri’s stories span continents, taking place in Connecticut, Calcutta, London, and elsewhere. Many of the characters in this collection are American immigrants, adjusting to the peculiarities of new settings and unexpected or surprising relationships. In Mrs. Sen’s, a young boy stays with a new caretaker, Mrs. Sen, after school in New England. From Calcutta, Mrs. Sen reminisces about her home and family there through preparing traditional dishes, but the distance from familiarity is ever-present. Set during the East Pakistan-West Pakistan War When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine is a story told from the perspective of 10-year-old Lilia, an Indian American girl, and deftly illustrates the tensions between India, Pakistan, and the what would become Bangladesh.

Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah traces the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who emigrated to the U.S. to study, and who’s lover, Obinze, is unable to follow her after the events of 9/11, and who’s immigration to the United Kingdom follows a different path, with different challenges. Americanah weaves together the experiences of both characters, how they are prepared—or not—for acclimating, and navigating the everyday racism of both countries. Adichie’s novel examines the ephemeral futility—so prized, yet so out-of-reach—of the American Dream, and deals with the intricacies of identity.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

We covered The Refugees in this What We’re Reading Now blog post, and Nguyen’s stories are those of immigrants any just nation has not only a moral imperative to help, but an obligation, under international human rights law, to assist and take in. Daily in 2019, we see how the American government organizations CBP and ICE treat those who legally present themselves as refugees seeking asylum: their access to safe haven restricted through metering, children separated from parents, and immigrants of all ages detained without even the sanitation standards expected of prisons. It should not take a short story collection to demonstrate the personhood of refugees, to drive home the truth that those seeking safe harbor from violence ought be able to find safety in industrialized, democratic nations. In any case, Nguyen’s stories—about a writer who fled war as a child by boat, about a young refugee sponsored by a gay couple, about those who have been unable to leave—shed light on the difficult human experience of leaving one’s home because it is too dangerous to stay.

Someone Like Me by Julissa Arce

Written by a DREAMer, Someone Like Me is a memoir of Arce’s childhood, and growing up undocumented in America. Arce’s experiences have led to becoming a fierce advocate for social justice, and her story sheds light on the experiences of those who are undocumented. Someone Like Me is the young readers edition of Arce’s memoir, My (Underground) American Dream.

the black maria by Aracelis Girmay

Another book we’ve written about before the black maria focuses on the immigrant experience of the Eritrean diaspora. A number of contemporary poetry collections engage with themes of migration and social justice, and Girmay’s collection is just one stunning example. The poems sort through the mazes of emotion, time, and routes-by-sea, all while. Girmay’s poems span continents and oceans, even life and death, as the collection explores themes of loss, belief, desire with a deft and lyric hand. The collection, and Girmay, are emphatic in their understanding that this—stories of migration, of forced or violent removal and reacclimatization—are a universal human experience. As Girmay herself wrote:

“It is estimated that over 20,000 people have died at sea making the journey from North Africa to Europe in the past two decades. On October 3, 2013, it is estimated that 300 people died at sea off the coast of Lampedusa. Those on board the boat that sank were nearly all Eritrean.

“This cycle of poems focuses on Eritrean history, as this is a history I am somewhat familiar with as someone of its diaspora. But, of course, the history of people searching for political asylum and opportunity (both) is much larger than Eritrean history alone.”

To help those navigating the U.S. immigration system, organizations like RAICES, The Bail Project, KIND (Kids In Need of Defense), and the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights all supply immigrants with legal aid and resources, and do worlds of good with the donations they receive.